The amazing content of Ronald D. Siegel in his lecture series “The Science of Mindfulness” lecture 1 is too good not to summarize and share. I’ve listened to many of his lectures and they’ve contributed to my wellness practice greatly but more importantly they’ve contributed to my spiritual development and the ease at which I accept myself everyday as being happy for who I am. Humans suffer from so much psychological, neurotic thought patterns, and pursuing a spiritual path in mindfulness is a way out of those negative thoughts and accepting of more positive ones.
So what is mindfulness? The wonderful easy summation is the awareness of the present experience with acceptance. It is being aware, paying attention, and remembering to be aware and to pay attention. We need to develop the intention to pay attention as much as possible and to focus on being non-judgmental (most importantly to ourselves) and totally present and accepting. The problem is that most of us claim that ‘of course we are aware of our present experience with acceptance.’ We strive towards new loving relationships, new jobs that motivate us, trips we book and look forward too, outings with friends, etc. However, it is far easier to look at these types of peak, positive-emotional events and be wooed by the grand feelings that we are present and accepting of the simply wonderful time we are having. But what about when we are not experiencing these peak moments which is most of the time? What are we feeling then?
It has been proven that if people perceive their actual competence to be high in being present and accepting to their experiences then the opposite is actually true and they are not actually being present and accepting. The more one does mindful practice the more they see themselves as less mindful than the people who have actually done less practice. This is so common and has been reported in numerous research trials that it actually has a name and is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Sometimes instead of focusing on mindful practice it is important to focus on when one is going through everyday mindlessness. Mindlessness refers to going into auto pilot mode. Almost everyday I say to myself that tomorrow is going to be the day that I wake up early to get things done in the morning for a change. I construct elaborate and organized plans at how I’ll spend my mornings and what I’ll get accomplished and how it’ll really make me feel better for the rest of the day. And ya know what? It always has a positive effect on me. However, on most mornings my alarm goes off and I can’t get out of bed. I’m horribly depressed at what I have to do and find it much easier and better to stay in bed. I need the sleep, I can do it later, my body hurts, I feel awful, and any other excuse I’ll utter. And the truly unfortunate thing is that by giving in to my mindlessness and getting up later I always feel groggy and like I didn’t do what I said I was going to do and it never leaves me feeling good vs always feeling good when I do actually get up early in the morning. I go into autopilot in the mornings.
Another way we are mindless is being lost in our fantasies of the past and future and not paying attention to what we are actually doing in the present. ‘Boy was that fun last week’, ‘I used to be so good at tennis. What happened?’, When can I get done with this writing in order to watch my favorite TV show?’, ‘Is this week almost over yet. I can’t wait to go camping.’ The past and future living can go on and on. It goes on so much that unless we are actually in the peak-high emotional moment we are pretty gloomy. In fact, our expectations about what we accomplished in the past is held up to such a high bar that they are often unrealistic to live up to. And if this type of thinking persists long enough we will actually feel negative feelings when we are in the moment of our supposed peak-high emotional moment we had been looking forward to for so long. You can’t win with this type of thinking as it is never ending, and to make it worse you are continually not present in your life while this is happening. A large percentage of our life is mentally being spent somewhere else. Imagine what it would look and feel like if we actually spent a large portion of our life being present and in the moment?
So what makes a good moment? For most people a moment that truly makes them happy and at ease is one in which both mind and body are working together? We spend most of our lives wishing it away? We get to the end of our lives and the grand realization is that no matter what we did it can be absolutely chalked up to a series of moments? Was it worth wishing your life away while you were actually living it? Did it serve you to be so concerned and worried and obsessed with wondering how it was that you were going to get to that next ‘pure and meaningful’ moment? What would it look like if we learned to accept and embrace our whole and complete daily lives, instead of just the moments we look fondly over in the past or those that we are looking forward to in the future?
The truth of the matter is that life is difficult for everybody. Everything changes and loss is inevitable. Growing up we saw this ever so often. How uncomfortable was it to start to go to school when we were little? How about transitioning to middle school, high school, college, etc. How uncomfortable was it to start a relationship, end a relationship, make new friends, have confrontations about things that were deep down important to us? How horrible was it to leave a job (even if it’s a bad job), think about what we want to do next, or move, or stop watching tv or any other habit we are used to doing? Most things we do come with a sense of resistance as it represents some form of loss or at least change from what we were doing before. Change is scary. It is unknown. We can’t measure it, we don’t know what it will look like. ‘No thank you, I’ll keep doing whatever it is I’m doing’ was most likely thought at every moment of your life when change was on the horizon. How stressful! What would life be like if we learned to accept and embrace loss and change?
Who is smarter, healthier, has bigger biceps, can run the fastest, is more artistic creative, has more style, is better at their job, writing summaries of mindful meditation? Who is better at being nice, who has better behaved kids or partners? Who is more selfless, more likely to be living in the moment, and who is the most enlightened?! We compare ourselves to others in a way that stresses us out. We are a social species and it has become very apparent to us that what others think of us is of vital importance. We need to be better! We need to spend our day doing the most with it! We need to be able to measure our success based on the successes of others! I will be the best at mindful meditation! The problem is that this leads nowhere. Even when we surpass our peers at what we think we’re better at doing we then just have more intense, ‘better’ individuals to then compete and compare ourselves too. Even Lebron James will forever be comparing himself to others who are pretty much just as good. In the Buddhist tradition, this comparing and contrasting is said to be the hardest element to master and let go of. It’s usually the last hurdle towards meditative enlightenment. What would life be like if we stopped competing with one another and measured ourselves by what we did, absent of what others were doing? Would a sense of ease spring forth if we had nothing to compare ourselves too? What would we spend our time doing?
After contemplating mindfulness and delving into what people mentally go through it is no wonder that happiness is elusive! We are preoccupied with ourselves in our past and future lives. We constantly compare ourselves to others and absolutely fear and move away from loss and resist change. Not to mention, we are also terrified of our own deaths and obsessed with worrying we haven’t been leading as meaningful of a life as we should. In the end, we all fall apart and die. One might think this is a bleak outlook but does it have to be bleak? Isn’t it a bit relaxing that we all share the same fate no matter who or where we are or whatever it is we’ve done? It is the grand equalizer that brings us all together. Shame we couldn’t have seen that sooner? Is there perhaps a happier way of being in the sense that we all end up in the same place anyway? What are we stressing about in the meantime? What have we been exposed to that makes us think like that?
Mindfulness can promote well being in that it acknowledges what is front of us. It savors the moment, makes us less occupied with self and comparisons, it helps us get along with others and see them more clearly for being just like us. We learn to empathize and not believe in our judgments. We end up not taking things so seriously. We end up moving away from a black and white world, a right and wrong world. The behavior of others isn’t about us, it actually reflects that person’s struggles and difficulties in the moment with whatever it is they are going through. Mindfulness creates one being present in relationships and leads to not acting on urges compulsively.
Mindfulness practice keeps our brains from withering away with age and literally leads to brain growth. It lengthens the telomeres, which are the tips of chromosomes that usually end up getting worn down by time and stress leading to eventual cell death. It actually activates brain circuits and neural pathways that were either lost or never there to begin with and makes our brains filled with being energized, happy, and enthusiastically engaged with life. Doesn’t sound so bad does it?
There are three skills necessary that lead to a successful mindful meditation practice. One is focused attention and being able to concentrate on an object and follow it closely. Open monitoring of yourself is another. How do you act and are you paying attention to how you act? How does your own mind create suffering? What kinds of patterns do you go in and what kinds of things dominate your consciousness in ‘the moment.’ These two skills above lead to the original intent of mindful meditation, which is being aware of your present experience. Think of a camera that is unfocused and taking pictures. We are taking pictures of life and not really seeing what is there besides vaguely being able to make out the unfocused pictures. Learning how to focus your camera is what the aim is here. And the third skill is practicing acceptance and loving kindness to what we discover. By focusing on the things in our mind and being aware and encountering them, how can we then come up with solutions to help soothe and comfort us? What creates and alleviates stress in our minds? What would happen if the source of our mental comfort was something that was inside of us that we could tap into at any moment?
It’s important to remember that when diving into a practice like mindful meditation we will be like an untrained puppy. It is a vulnerable experience especially when we live in a culture that values and solely equates experience in life with wisdom. We have years of habits and thought patterns and distracted perspectives and impatient views to overcome. We will sometimes shit in the wrong place. We will sometimes bite the hand that feeds and it all won’t go smoothly from the start. However, research has shown that mindful meditation is dose dependent. A little bit of practice leads to a little mindfulness and a lot of practice leads to a lot of mindfulness. Starting and maintaining a relationship with mindful meditation is no different than starting a relationship to make your body physically healthy. It will take time and patience working out and making it a part of your lifestyle.
The overall goals of mindful meditation is not in developing a ‘blank mind.’ It is about encountering thoughts and having the power and influence to change the relationship with that thought. One doesn’t have to identify and believe each thought as it arrives, as that is a habit we can easily fall into. The point is to feel the pain but by feeling the pain and learning how to interact with it we suffer less. It’s not about withdrawing from energies or life in general (although that may be the result of some energies you have control of for interacting with) but much more about being in your present life. We are not seeking bliss but instead seeking a calm approach to being open, accepting, and awakened so one can participate more in life.